This story was first published by Energy News Network.
A once-novel solar power technology with Ohio roots is having a moment in the sun, along with two Toledo-area manufacturers.
Scientists had experimented with cadmium telluride solar panels in the lab since the 1950s, but the technology was commercialized just two decades ago after important groundwork by a pair of Ohio entrepreneurs who founded what would eventually become First Solar.
After years of fighting for a niche next to cheaper and more efficient crystalline silicon solar cells, cadmium telluride has recently closed the gap on cost and energy output. Cadmium telluride panels hold the largest worldwide market share among thin-film solar technologies, which use very thin layers of semiconductor material, versus thicker, more rigid crystalline silicon.
On top of technological advances, the sector is poised to benefit from ongoing supply-chain politics and new federal climate-change legislation that incentivizes domestic manufacturing.
Those trends are fueling a solar manufacturing boom in Ohio, where despite hostile state and local policies against solar farms, two cadmium telluride manufacturers have announced major expansions that promise to add hundreds of jobs in the coming years.
First Solar plans to open its third Ohio factory later this year in Lake Township. That 3.3-gigawatt plant will be followed by a 1.3-million-square-foot research and development facility in Perrysburg, slated to open next year. Plans call for a fourth U.S. factory to open in Alabama in 2025, bringing the company’s total U.S. production capacity to roughly 10 GW.
Meanwhile, Toledo Solar, whose panels go mainly to commercial and residential users, is tripling its production capacity from 100 to 300 megawatts this year. Although the company is much smaller than First Solar, which targets the utility-scale market, “that’s a big deal for us,” said CEO Aaron Bates.
“The Toledo area, with its deep ties to the glass industry, was a natural incubator in the early years of our business,” said Kuntal Kumar Verma, chief manufacturing officer for First Solar. More than 20 years later, northwestern Ohio “is home to a pool of thin-film solar manufacturing knowledge that is perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the world.”
The cadmium telluride solar sector’s origin story in Ohio starts with two superheroes of the glass industry.
Harold McMaster grew up as a farm boy in northwestern Ohio, and Norman Nitschke spent his boyhood in East Toledo. The two pioneered the manufacture and use of tempered glass — the stuff used for car windshields so it won’t break into jagged shards. They became co-founders of several companies, including Glasstech.
McMaster and Nitschke then began working on solar energy through Glasstech Solar. That work led to Solar Cells, Inc. Under McMaster’s leadership, the company developed the basic vapor deposition process for its cadmium telluride solar cells in 1997.
The process uses hot gas to crystalize a layer of cadmium telluride whose thickness measures roughly 3% of a human hair. That layer, glass and other materials make up the solar panel’s “sandwich.” Production takes less time than that for crystalline silicon panels, which represent the majority of solar panels used worldwide.
After the sale of a controlling interest in the company to an Arizona-based investment firm, Solar Cells, Inc. became First Solar in 1999 and opened its first manufacturing plant in Perrysburg.
Yet it took years before the cells’ efficiency improved enough to become competitive. In 2016, First Solar achieved an energy conversion efficiency of 22% in the lab. A 2019 study by company scientists and researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory refined that work, reducing the risk of instabilities that could lessen efficiency.
Toledo Solar chose the Toledo area when it started up in 2019, so it could capitalize on the knowledge base built up by First Solar and nearby universities. Starting elsewhere would have been “such a lift, and it would be so expensive,” Bates said.
Today cadmium telluride solar is a proven technology, and it’s competitive with crystalline silicon, said Lorelle Mansfield, a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “It’s in the field. It’s utility-scale. It’s out there, and it’s working well,” she said.
The cadmium telluride sector currently supplies roughly 40% of the U.S. utility-scale market and about 5% of the worldwide market, according to the U.S. Manufacturing of Advanced Cadmium Telluride Photovoltaics Consortium, or US-MAC. Members include various companies, universities and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
A Global Market Estimates report released in January projected that the global cadmium telluride market would grow at a compound annual rate of 12.5% from 2023 to 2028 as the energy transition continues.
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